In the 'Since Magic' Era, a Hope for Moral Honesty

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 22, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- The stories all begin the same way, as if they were marking days on a chart after a life-changing cataclysm:

''In the three days since Magic Johnson . . . ''

''In the ten days since Magic Johnson . . . ''

''In the two weeks since Magic Johnson . . . ''

On Nov. 7, the superstar with the smile announced that he had tested positive on an exam everyone wants to flunk. We now know he is carrying the HIV virus and some of his stardust is illuminating the corners of the disease we call AIDS.

In the S.M. ''Since Magic'' Era, we are talking about condoms and the heterosexual epidemic, about penises and vaginas in their anatomically correct terminology. But in all of this matter-of-factness, we are still having trouble talking about the Psyche and Sex. To be specific, about promiscuity, values and ** value judgments.

On Day 12 of S.M. Era, on my way to work, I listen to two men arguing on the car radio. One offers thinly veiled suspicions that Magic ''caught it'' from men, not women. The other angrily rebuts this attack by citing Magic's reputation as a ''womanizer.'' I walk into the office shaking my head over this character defense.

At lunch, a doctor talks about the luck of having Magic as a spokesman for AIDS. He's a man of kindness, a role model for teen-agers. Something good, says the doctor, may yet come from something god-awful.

But over coffee, our conversation shifts from the medical to the personal. The doctor recalls Magic's description of the life he once led: ''Before I was married, I truly lived the bachelor's life. . . .I was never at a loss for female companionship. . . . I did my best to accommodate as many women as I could. . . .''

What kind of life was that, the doctor asks, sheepish and bewildered. But, it is not a question she asks in public.

Later in the day, I spot a story in the paper about a high school student in Texas who asked his teacher why someone as smart and successful as Johnson led that ''lifestyle.'' The teacher told him that Magic came from a generation that didn't know the dangers.

I wonder if the teacher who answers in such measured classroom tones thinks about these things differently at home. Does she try to imagine Cookie Johnson's thoughts about the nameless women her husband knew in the years they were ''just'' dating?

At times it seems that AIDS has made it easier to talk about sex in technical terms and harder to talk about sex in emotional terms. It's polarized some of us and silenced the rest.

When AIDS first came into our consciousness, ''The Gay Plague,'' it seemed to splinter off groups of moral and medical absolutists. The moralists talked about sin and the medicalists talked about disease. The moralists preached about human behavior. The medicalists, in reaction, lectured about viruses.

This split has come down to us in different forms. In the debate about condoms in schools, the moralists talk about abstinence and the medicalists about safer sex. In the debate about passing out needles to drug addicts, the moralists focus on drug use and the medicalists on safer shooting up.

Now, in the S.M. Era the moralists have captured the market on monogamy while the medicalists have adopted Mr. Johnson as a heterosexual poster child. The rest of us are rather quiet about the sex in this sexual disease.

The silence is partially out of sympathy toward Mr. Johnson himself. Who among us would yell at a paraplegic because he didn't wear his seat belt? He knows, he knows. It's out of the sense that sex is private even when someone goes public. And out of the knowledge that you can get AIDS from one partner.

But the poverty of this dialogue about human behavior comes largely out of the choices that we see. In the wake of the sexual revolution we are pressured to be either prudish or approving. To follow the Seventh Commandment or none.

These either-ors are laid over the traditional male talk about ''the bachelor's life'' or ''scoring.'' Wilt Chamberlain, after all boasts a lifetime record of 20,000 women.

It may be easier to find a cure for AIDS than to find our bearings. But the outlines of a consensus are there. After all, few of us believe that protection makes a virtue out of promiscuity. Most of us recognize that premarital sex is here to stay. On the whole, we are happier with the vision of sex as an intimate exchange, not a sporting event.

Instead of choosing a prefabricated value, we can begin to clarify our values. We can approve both condoms and caution. We can hold some single standard of medical and emotional care-ful-ness. And in the third week of the S.M. Era, we can be grateful for the strengths of the man who has spoken out, without ignoring his weaknesses.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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